For a guy who’s only played in a handful of college games, it has been a rapid rise to stardom for Grant Gunnell, who’s clearly the face of Arizona football these days.
The sophomore was UA’s lone player representative at Pac-12 media day and the only Wildcat to interview with the local media multiple times during fall camp—and both times he was paired with head coach Kevin Sumlin.
So it goes when you’re the starting quarterback at a Power 5 university.
“I mean, there’s always pressure when you’re playing football and that’s not a bad thing to me,” Gunnell said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I see and feel pressure as something that drives me. If you’re not feeling pressure each game, like those butterflies in your stomach, you don’t love football.”
And there’s no denying Gunnell loves football. Sure, he likes to bowl and play with his eight-month-old English lab every now and then, but those are secondary hobbies.
“Other than that I nap or I’m in the playbook,” he said. “There’s not a lot of stuff I do outside of football.”
That makes him different from a lot of young players including his predecessor Khalil Tate, who struggled with his conditioning and knowledge of the offense in his first year on campus because he didn’t think he’d be thrust into action.
Even when Gunnell was the backup, he was preparing as if he was the starter.
“I approach every practice like it’s a game day,” Gunnell said. “I go through the script. I make sure I know each play that’s going to be called and my reads on each play, so I don’t go play careless, I play how the offense needs me to play each practice.”
Even in scrimmages, when the stakes are much lower and Gunnell could take chances without major repercussions.
“In camp, that’s the best you can get,” he said. “Right now the best time of my life is going out there and going against the defense live and seeing how the offense is going, get through some growing pains and stuff like that. It’s just who can set up right in the formations, it’s all the little stuff— signals, running the right depths in your routes and getting timing down with receivers and stuff like that. It’s just fixing the little things and getting better.”
Several of Gunnell’s teammates have praised his assertiveness in practice so far. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not the loudest guy on the field—he’s soft-spoken in interviews too—but he’s learning how to use his voice.
“This year it’s really his offense,” said sophomore receiver Jamarye Joiner. “He’s yelling, he’s yelling at me, he’s yelling at the running backs, ‘Get set! Get set!’ Making sure everybody’s on the line, on the ball, off the ball, motioning. He’s really taking charge of the offense and that’s what we need in order to win these seven games that are coming up.”
Gunnell knows how hard it is to win at this level. He got a real feel for Pac-12 defenses last season when he put up some big numbers, but also experienced his fair share of setbacks like when he was benched at Oregon and threw his first interception at USC.
Those moments highlighted the areas of his game that needed improvement this offseason, like his arm strength, pocket presence and game management.
It’s why Gunnell is glad he didn’t redshirt last season, even though he wasn’t the full-time starter.
“I think coming off the bench some games and getting pulled was the best thing for me confidence-wise because that’s gonna happen in a game,” he said. “You’re gonna have downs, you’re gonna have lows and you have to learn how to get above them with the offense. You can’t let anyone else see you down because then the whole offense can be down.”
And if the whole offense is down, Arizona probably won’t win many—if any—games this season, as it’s defense and special teams have been some of the worst in the country the last few years.
That’s more than Gunnell should have to shoulder in his first year as a starter, but he’s embracing the challenge.
“Yeah, there’s definitely pressure,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say it’s a negative thing.”